Sent home early: Lost learning in special education

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This article was published on the Hechinger Report by Sarah Butrymowicz on March 25, 2021.

Near the end of Delilah McBride’s second month of kindergarten in Taylor, Michigan, her family received jarring news from her principal: Delilah would be allowed to come to school only in the morning. Someone would need to pick her up before noon every day, even as the rest of her peers continued learning and playing together.

Delilah’s first several weeks of school in the fall of 2018 had been marked by discipline incidents and suspensions, as she got in trouble for not listening to instructions and hitting staff members. Her parents wanted to get her a special education designation — and all the supports that came with it. But instead, they were told by school administrators that their daughter “couldn’t handle full days,” said Sarah McBride, Delilah’s mother. 

“It was a nonnegotiable thing,” McBride recalled. That night, as she and her husband scrambled to figure out who could watch Delilah in the early afternoon, questions swirled in her head: “How long is this going to go on? Were [school officials] able to do it?”

The short answer, according to special education lawyers and advocates across the country, is no. But that doesn’t stop it from happening frequently.

This year, millions of students have had their schooling curtailed, prompting serious discussions about the effects of lost learning time. But a subset of students in special education has been quietly plagued with this problem for decades, often with devastating consequences. Shortening the school day for students with disabilities as punishment for their behavior is illegal, experts say. Instead, schools must support and address these issues in the classroom.

For the most part, however, schools are not required to justify their decisions to send students home early, nor is any significant data collected on this practice, allowing the problem to remain largely hidden. For many students, a shortened school day can last for months or even years, which can have a disastrous impact as they miss out on crucial academic, social and emotional learning time.

In the months following the decision to shorten Delilah’s day, McBride met with teachers and administrators in the Taylor School District about her daughter’s struggles. She continued to push for Delilah to be identified for special education services, which would open up a wealth of federal protections under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The district, at first, resisted, McBride said. It did, however, create a behavior intervention plan, which is meant to outline the behavior challenges a child is having, why they’re happening and the strategies school staff should use to address them. McBride described Delilah’s plan as “a joke.”

In March 2019, McBride finally succeeded in getting her daughter identified as having an emotional impairment and given an individualized education program, or IEP. This document spells out what services and accommodations students with disabilities must get from their school districts. Delilah’s, for instance, included that she spend part of her day in a separate room getting instruction from a special education teacher. But her behavior intervention plan was also revised to include a provision that Delilah be picked up even earlier if teachers couldn’t get her behavior under control. “I refused to sign that,” McBride said.

“They brought up safety of staff and other students, which as a parent, I understand,” she said. “But my kid matters, too. Her education, her everything, matters, too.”

Taylor School District officials said they could not discuss student information without authorization. They did not respond to questions about their policies regarding shortened school days, but said they followed state guidance.

Michigan is one of several states that has released guidance about shortened school days. Like most, it stresses that the practice should be rare, noting that the only time it is appropriate to shorten a day is when an IEP team decides the measure “is required to address the student’s unique disability-related needs.”

McBride said that Delilah’s shortened school day was never addressed in her IEP. Experts say that’s common, and parents often don’t realize what rights their children have when it comes to accessing a full day of school. Sometimes, as with the McBrides, parents are simply told by a school official that their child will be on a new schedule, but the change is never documented anywhere. Other parents report simply being called almost every day to pick up their child early.

Yet there are instances when a shortened school day is formally written into a student’s IEP. That’s what happened with Catherine Pearson’s son Logan, who was diagnosed with autism at age 2. When he entered first grade in 2008, after a half-day kindergarten program, his school district, in Eagle Point, Oregon, never even attempted a full-day schedule, Pearson said. The school wanted to start with the same hours of instruction he’d been receiving. Doing so would make Logan “more successful,” she recalls being told.

“It’s very sneaky,” Pearson said. “It’s just the way they word things where we trust them. We think, ‘OK, we’ll slowly build up to a full day.’”

But that never happened. Logan continued to receive a partial school day for years as Pearson watched him regress.

Eagle Point School District declined to comment.

School officials will often try to spin the decision to shorten a child’s day as something that’s best for everyone, including the student, according to Diane Smith Howard, managing attorney for criminal and juvenile justice at the National Disability Rights Network. But this kind of language obscures the real reason why districts turn to this option, she said: “They send kids home because they just don’t know what to do with them.”

Smith Howard has been advocating for years to have the federal government address shortened school days. In 2016, following requests from her group, the Department of Education released guidance that clarified regularly sending a child home early was likely akin to a suspension, and should be reported by the school.

But the government, so far, has stopped short of requiring that any data be collected on how often school districts take this action.  Similarly, the vast majority of states do not gather any information about how often they place students on shortened schedules. A Hechinger survey of 36 states found just one, Oklahoma, that requires data on shortened school days to be reported in such a way that state officials can track it.

Oklahoma officials said school districts may incorrectly categorize some information as they report it, but even imperfect data is useful to develop statewide reports and to highlight potential problems worth digging into further. Based on what they find, they may choose to monitor a school district or provide technical assistance.

More states should have such systems in place, said Selene Almazan, legal director of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates. “This is absolutely something they should be monitoring,” she said. “It is a denial of a free appropriate public education,” something guaranteed to students in special education under federal law.

Joel Greenberg, senior staff attorney at Disability Rights Oregon, has been pushing for years to get his state to collect information about students on a shortened school day. He says he still frequently sees the problems that Pearson and her son faced and estimates he’s filed a minimum of 20 complaints with the state about similar cases.

In 2016, he tried to get state legislators to propose a bill that, among other things, would require school districts to report the number of students who were placed on a shortened schedule for more than 30 days.

The final law was much shorter and less comprehensive than Greenberg wanted. A proposed mandate to collect data on shortened school days was removed entirely, as were provisions that would have specified the limited reasons a school district could require a shortened day. The law did, however, say that parents must consent to a shortened day and that a student’s IEP team must demonstrate that it considered at least one other option before sending a child home early.

But frustrated the law didn’t go far enough, Greenberg turned to the courts. In 2019, Disability Rights Oregon, among others, filed a class action lawsuit against the state Department of Education  alleging that hundreds of students had had their days illegally cut short. One advocacy organization reported receiving calls from nearly 280 parents about this issue from September 2016 to December 2018, according to the complaint.

The Department of Education was unable to comment on pending litigation, said Marc Siegel, communications director. He added that the state was “committed to ensuring the full and appropriate implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act” and that the department had taken several steps to ensure districts followed all laws.

Greenberg said he still sees problems, however. Part of the issue, he said, is that small rural school districts, in particular, lack the resources and training to effectively support students with behavioral challenges. He’d like to see the state go beyond offering semiannual one- or two-day trainings on the topic and also provide districts with experts who can give hands-on assistance on complex cases.

Absent such help, even when the state has ruled in his clients’ favor on complaints, problems have remained, Greenberg said. The resolutions to the cases often call for the district to bring the IEP team together and approve a behavior plan, perhaps in consultation with a psychologist. But sometimes, districts still maintained that a student needed a shortened day. Other times, students were officially allowed to return to a full day, but parents were called frequently to pick them up early.

The school districts “still needed support, which they weren’t getting,” Greenberg said. “The state was not providing anything to them that was helping.”

Almazan, who is also involved in the Oregon lawsuit, agreed that the availability of resources for districts was a concern, but noted that getting someone adequately trained in best practices didn’t have to be a huge financial burden. “It’s something that can be addressed,” she said. “To me, the answer is not for the child to suffer a loss of education because the school doesn’t have someone.”

Pearson, the Oregon parent, was a teacher herself and was very aware of the lack of resources at her son’s school. The problems continued as he moved to Medford School District in third grade, she said. Pearson pushed as much as she could, attending frequent IEP meetings, writing letters and even, at one point, considering hiring a lawyer to try to secure a full day in school for her son. Logan, who is nonverbal, would often struggle to communicate and would sometimes hurt himself or bite or pinch others. But Pearson remained firm that missing out on school was not the answer.

“The school found his profound needs to be a sign that he needed less schooling,” Pearson said. “When a child is struggling with reading, you don’t try less.”

Natalie Hurd, a Medford district spokesperson, said the district was unable to address specific student cases and noted that district leadership, including special education administrators, had changed since Logan attended.

The decision to place a student on a shortened, or modified, day comes only after several other steps to address behavior challenges have been exhausted, said Michele Cleveland, Medford’s assistant director of special education. But there are times when it is the appropriate decision if a student is repeatedly harming others or themselves.

“When it comes to a modified day, specifically for behavior, what we really look at is the safety of our students,” she said. For example, a student routinely running out of the classroom wouldn’t be a reason to consider shortening the day, but a student running into the road daily might rise to that level.

To place a student on a shortened-day schedule, educators must also create a reentry plan that has specific, achievable goals for the student to work back to a full day and regularly communicate with parents. Cleveland noted that not all families oppose putting their students on a shortened day and, when it is done well, some see real results in improving behavior.

“I know this idea of modified day can get a bad rap sometimes,” she said. “It can be really successful.”

Pearson, however, wasn’t seeing any benefits to Logan spending so much time out of school. She felt that she was running into repeated dead ends with the school district. She and her husband, a civil engineer, both worried about losing their jobs, as they missed significant amounts of work to deal with the situation.

And so, in 2012, they made a heartbreaking decision to send their son to a group home in Salem, Oregon, four hours away. The night before Logan left, Pearson stayed up all night crying. In the home, Logan received even less time in school, just an hour and a half a day at most. Every weekend, his parents would go visit him or bring him home. When they dropped him back at the group home after their time together, he would start punching himself and crying. Logan’s parents knew this could be only a short-term fix.

By the end of her kindergarten year, Delilah also hated saying goodbye to her parents at school. Getting her out of the car and into the building in the morning was a struggle. She would sit in the back seat in the drop-off lane, begging not to go in, saying that no one at school liked her.

It’s not surprising when a student reacts this way, Smith Howard said. “They’re already struggling and then they are told, ‘We don’t want you here,’ and then they’re sent home with very little academic or behavioral support,” she said. “It’s not just the time they’ve lost, it’s the message they’ve been given about their value.”

And there are academic consequences as well. For Delilah, missing every afternoon meant losing hundreds of hours of instruction, including science and math lessons. In fall of 2019, shortly after starting first grade, Delilah moved to a day treatment facility operated by a nearby school district. She tested behind in math, and it remains her least favorite subject.

The facility isn’t exactly right for her, McBride said — it’s too restrictive. But Delilah receives more one-on-one time and, crucially, a full day of school. Her behavior problems have essentially disappeared. 

Still upset over how her daughter’s case had been handled, McBride filed a complaint with the state Department of Education in November 2019. The state agreed with the majority of the issues raised and mandated Delilah receive 50 hours of what are known as compensatory services. The hours were a mere fraction of the time she had lost, but the decision served as validation, nonetheless.

“Getting the state to come back and agree was a huge win for us,” McBride said. “In the end, I know that they did something wrong.”

Pearson also was ultimately able to get her son a full school day — it just took even more drastic action. In 2013, the whole family moved 3,000 miles across the country to Massachusetts, where Logan could attend a specialized school for students with disabilities. Once enrolled, he was placed on an extended-day program. He had no trouble handling the longer hours, and Pearson soon began to notice an immense difference. Issues Logan had in Oregon, like crying and screaming, vanished. Now, at age 18, he is able to better communicate using sign language and an iPad.

Still, Pearson laments that he didn’t get that level of instruction throughout elementary school. “I feel guilty as a mom we waited,” she said. “I feel like he would have had a voice from the beginning.”